Correlation vs. Causation in Motivational Theory & Employee Engagement

correlation vs. causation

As the quest for engaging employees continues into this new year, lets get beyond the typical discussion around money not being the largest motivating factor for younger workers. This is a well established fact by now (Academic Peer-Reviewed Article or Digestible HBR Article). If you personally haven’t taken a lower paying job to get out of a bad work environment, you most likely know someone who has. The paradigm in thinking here starts with reviewing our extrinsic motivator levers and whether they have a correlation or a causation in the engagement levels of employees.

why do people leave jobs?

We have seen a large shift over the last year toward a holistic approach known as #OrganizationalHealth. Leaders are facing a brave new world filled with the challenge of having to find new ways to motivate their teams, enticing leaders to begin to read up on recent leaps forward in neuroscience and psychology around the topics of people management and performance.

There are so many great things to read within these burgeoning realms of study but I want to focus in on a specific longitudinal test because it was done within a law school and I have a somewhat masochistic intrigue around higher education and how it relates to how new workers are behaving and engaging in today’s workplace. (This given the inverse correlation of 1. how I have utilized my higher education knowledge in the real world vs. 2. my astronomical amount of student loan debt. #NotBitterAtAll A topic for another article on another day.)

Let’s dive in, shall we? You can see the definition of SDT here, but the real meat of it has to do “with the interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature.” In our discussion we are looking, specifically, at how to build employee engagement programs that go beyond the typical extrinsic motivations that most companies use to entice and retain top talent. Don’t get me wrong, extrinsic motivators will still work, but they may not maximize productivity and results, and if the culture is toxic, they certainly won’t prevent people from jumping ship.

The increasing lack of effectiveness of extrinsic motivators alone is one of the reasons that organizational health has become such a hot topic as of late. It speaks specifically to the importance of a positive work environment that decreases stress and maximizes performance and results through empowering intrinsic or self-determining motivators in employees.

[Our] natural developmental tendencies do not, however, operate automatically, but instead require ongoing social nutriments and supports. That is, the social context can either support or thwart the natural tendencies toward active engagement and psychological growth, or it can catalyze lack of integration, defense, and fulfillment of need-substitutes.

The rather wordy and academic explanation (Organismic Dialectical Meta-Theory) above essentially gives the basis for the root needs of people and what they are searching for. If an organization’s culture and/or an employees individual responsibilities are not providing the “nutriments and support” for their intrinsic self-motivations or perceived autonomous support, they become disengaged, or as the quote above explains it, “it can catalyze lack of integration, defense and fulfillment of need-substitutes.”


So, what many try to understand as a causation is, in reality, more of a correlation. These cultural factors are not always a catalyst for negative, destructive or separating behaviors, but they do often coincide with those behaviors. With a better understanding of the psychology behind engagement, leaders will be better able to do the work of crafting a process and plan around how to draw out the best in their people.

As they say, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it. It is not easy. It is hard work, deep work. It can be challenging but it is certainly rewarding.

One final note: It is possible that an employee may be disengaged for a number of reasons that have to do with previous work environments or bosses that certain things trigger within the current environment. There are many ways to deal with this, in my opinion, the most human way is to have a conversation and ask empathetic questions to try to draw out the root causes of the behaviors in question to allow the employee to arrive at the realization themselves. If it were me, I would consider offering long lunches once a week for that person (if they are committed to dealing with the root cause and are a high performer otherwise) to see a professional of their choice to help them through it.

As always, this article is comprised of a great deal of research and reading, but the summation is undeniably opinion, of which I am happy to engage in thoughtful discussion around (and even be proven wrong). I welcome your constructive engagement in the comments.